Crime

16 unlawful practice charges against civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt dropped

Jacqueline Craig’s lawyer Lee Merritt defends his right to work in Texas

Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Craig family, faces a lawsuit that alleges he is unlawfully practicing in the state of Texas. Merritt disputes those claims.
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Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Craig family, faces a lawsuit that alleges he is unlawfully practicing in the state of Texas. Merritt disputes those claims.

Sixteen complaints against a civil rights attorney from Philadelphia for practicing law in Texas without a license have been dropped, S. Lee Merritt announced on Friday.

Merritt has gained attention for handling high-profile civil rights cases, mostly involving police misconduct allegations. This includes Jacqueline Craig of Fort Worth; the family of Jordan Edwards, who was killed by former Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver; the family of O’Shae Terry, who was killed by an Arlington police officer in September; and the family of Botham Jean, who was killed by a Dallas police officer three months ago.

Merritt’s ability to represent clients in Texas courts was challenged by the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee, a panel established by the Texas Supreme Court. The committee filed a complaint in January in Tarrant County asking that a judge grant a temporary restraining order prohibiting Merritt from practicing law in Texas, but then filed a motion asking the court to withdraw that complaint. The group refiled in Collin County.

In January, Merritt responded by saying that he only practices in Texas federal courts, making the complaint frivolous. Merritt also works in conjunction with licensed state attorneys, he has said. On Friday, Merritt said the Texas justice system was used as a tool to suppress the rights of the most vulnerable.

“I run a national civil rights firm that I use to advocate on behalf of victims,” he told the Star-Telegram in a Twitter message before holding a news conference to announce the case’s dismissal.

Merritt also represents families outside of Texas, including the heirs of Jemel Roberson, a security guard who was killed by a police officer in Illinois.

“The rules governing that practice are not difficult to understand,” he wrote. “If I am advocating on behalf of individuals seeking redress for federal or constitutional violations I have the authority to do so as an attorney in good standing before the federal courts and my practice should be allowed to move forward unmolested. That was exactly what I was doing when Sharen Wilson, the Tarrant County D.A. lodged the first compliant with the state bar. The bar had a responsibility to tell her as much and to possibly admonish her as a state agent for making a baseless claim.”

Instead, Merritt said the committee began a two-year campaign “of harassment, intimidation and defamation.”

“After two years of digging, the 16 counts of criminal contempt that they presented before the court seeking six months of incarceration on each count — hardly merited a response at all,” he said. “Fourteen were dismissed outright before a rebuttal was even offered.”

The two remaining counts were later decided in his favor, Merritt said Friday.

Complaints of unlicensed practice of law is investigated and handled by the Supreme Court of Texas’ Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee and a spokeswoman for the State Bar of Texas directed inquiries to the committee.

A request for comment by the committee was not immediately returned on Friday.

Merritt said the two-year investigation took time away from him serving families who are seeking justice and he demanded a public apology.

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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.
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